Monday, November 21, 2011

Can You Win the iWoz Lottery?

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Can You Win the iWoz Lottery? A Review of iWoz by Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith

An interesting read, but mostly lacking in suasion from my perspective. The short critique is that it's like a book written by the winner of a lottery trying to encourage other people to play. His particular lottery was the innovation lottery, but the odds are about the same or lower compared to other lotteries, especially when you consider the cost of playing. Insofar as lotteries are just a special tax on people who are bad at math, and insofar as the Woz is claiming to be good at math, I feel that I have to expect better. In addition, when you consider how he struck out the second time he seriously played (with his universal remote control), even his own winning average drops to 50%.

The difference is that a regular lottery just takes a few bucks and a bit of patience to play, while the innovation lottery has much tougher requirements. First you need to have a good idea, but there are lots of great ones floating around, and his winning idea of personal computers was widely shared at the time. The second requirement is good timing as regards any technical and economic prerequisites. In the main example in the book back when Apple was founded, integrated circuits were just reaching the degree of sophistication needed for useful computers and the prices had fallen to the point where individuals could afford to buy the chips. Then there's the hard work aspect as all of the competitors race towards the big prizes. (In my interpretation, probably the most decisive moment in the story of Apple was when the campaign Steve Jobs had started succeeded in persuading the Woz to leave HP. After that the company had the key people with the time and the focus to succeed.) In his conclusion, the Woz talks about individual creativity, but his story makes it clear that the team is crucial. It was the combination of skills that made the difference, with his technical skills balancing the marketing and leadership skills that Jobs brought to the new company.

Not enough, however. There were plenty of competitors in that race, and even though the Woz felt the Apple II was technically superior, I'm convinced that there is also the element of luck. Even the Woz frequently refers to luck in the book. Too bad the book isn't currently searchable on the Web, or I'd get a word count for "luck"...

He talks a little bit about what I regard as the most important philosophic change of the period, but without much insight. He came out of the hobbyist days when it was almost expected that computers would be used by hackers who understood things in a deep way. That was the open box philosophy that was epitomized by the Apple II, and he gives many examples. However, he only nods vaguely at the Mac, which was the first major closed-box success. In my view, he even went over to the dark side in his praise of the iPod later on.

I was also troubled by some of the technical flaws of the book. Some of them probably reflect the technical limitations of his interviewer combined with his desire to make the book accessible to nontechnical readers. For example, the glossary includes EEPROM, which is essentially irrelevant to the book and collapses PROM programming to burning a singular fuse in contrast to the extremely plural reality. However, one that really bothered me as casting a doubt over the Woz's technical abilities was on page 113, where he talks about the search for a manual that listed the frequencies needed for the cross-tone generator. I feel like a real hacker would just throw the signals onto a oscilloscope and find them out observationally. He seems to regard this manual as a major technical secret? (Actually, it mostly reminded of the time I wired a cross-tone keypad into the bottom of a rotary phone so that I could pick up the phone and switch from pulse to tones, probably as part of the non-ATT long-distance phone service I was sharing with my co-residents at the Laurel House Coop back in the early '80s...)

In conclusion, I can't regard it as a great book, but a good read. The Woz comes off as a nice guy who deserved to win--but I feel the same way about many of the losers in those innovation lotteries, and there are far more losers than winners. I should try to read the new Steve Jobs biography for comparison...

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